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Survey confirms federal scientists feel muzzled by Harper information clampdown

posted Oct 21, 2013, 5:35 PM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Oct 21, 2013, 5:39 PM ]
Canadian Press photo.
Daily Brew

Survey confirms federal scientists feel muzzled by Harper information clampdown

By  | Daily Brew – 2 hours 2 minutes ago

One of the Conservatives' key strategies is to keep a tight lid on information coming out of the federal government at all levels to ensure a consistent message.

That's meant a maddening decline in access for journalists and strict discipline for MPs and cabinet ministers on what they can say, except for a select few. Communication tends to be limited to talking points prepared by the Prime Minister's Office.

Public servants at every level are also forbidden from talking with reporters unless their comments have been vetted by the PMO or the government's sizeable cadre of communications minders, lest they say something that might conflict with the Conservatives' message.

Federal scientists have been perhaps the most vocal in railing against this policy, which they say has prevented them from speaking their minds to media and public about their work.

Now a study commissioned by their union confirms the widespread muzzling of taxpayer-funded scientists and attempts to get them to doctor their work.

[ Related: As world’s top scientists meet in Vancouver, Ottawa rapped for ‘muzzling’ scientists ]

CBC News reports the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) released the results Monday of an extensive survey. It revealed hundreds of scientists reported being barred from speaking publicly or to reporters, while others were asked to change or delete technical information from government documents for non-scientific reasons.

More than a quarter of the 15,398 federal scientists who were invited to take part in the online survey done by Environics Research Group responded, the union said. The survey, done in June, is considered accurate to a margin of plus or minus 1.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Of those who responded, 24 per cent said they "sometimes" or "often" were asked to exclude or alter information, usually by their direct supervisors but also by other federal departments, politically appointed staff, business or industry representatives and public-interest advocates, CBC News said.

Some 37 per cent said they had been prevented from responding to questions from the media or public in the last five years, compared with 10 per cent who said they felt free to talk.

One in two of the respondents said they were aware of cases where the health and safety of Canadians was compromised because of political interference with their scientific work, CBC News reported. Almost as many said the were aware of instances where their department or agency had suppressed or decided not to release information, which led to "incomplete, inaccurate or misleading impressions."

Almost three quarters said they thought the public sharing of government scientific information had become to restrictive.

The PIPSC, whose membership includes 20,000 federal scientists, said in its news release that 90 per cent of survey respondents found they were not allowed to speak freely to the media about their work and almost as many worried they'd face censure or retaliation for doing so.

Not long after coming to power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government introduced new communications policies requiring scientists to get permission before speaking to reporters.

"Federal scientists are facing a climate of fear – a chill brought on by government policies that serve no one’s interests, least of all those of the Canadian public," PIPSC president Gary Corbett said in the release.

"The safety of our food, air, water, of hundreds of consumer and industrial products, and our environment depends on the ability of federal scientists to provide complete, unbiased, timely and accurate information to Canadians. Current policies must change to ensure these objectives are met."

[ Related: Scientists in white lab coats protest federal government muzzling, funding cuts ]

Some scientists have spoken out, recently attending rallies to protest the Harper government's short leash.

The government, for its part, denies its boffins are being gagged.

Responding to interview requests on the subject from MacLean's last spring, a government spokeswoman offered this statement:

"There have been no recent changes to the government’s communication policy for federal civil servants," the statement said. "Government scientists and experts are readily available to share their research with the media and the public."

The statement went on to say federal scientists have published hundreds of studies and scientific papers that are publicly available (skirting the question of whether the material was massaged to conform to government policy), and that Environment Canada staff gave 1,300 media interviews last year. MacLean's pointed out the department's meteorologists are free to talk about the weather without getting prior approval.

As the MacLean's piece observed, critics see the government's information-management strategy as a way of denying the Conservatives' political opponents and other potentially contentious organizations the ammunition they need to challenge its policies on resource development, climate change or health.

And political scientist Patrick Fafard noted the government has been tightening control of information from public servants for about two decades, long before the Harper Conservatives arrived in 2006. They've simply accelerated the trend, the University of Ottawa associate professor of public and international affairs, told CBC News.

The same thing happened in the United States during the administration of President George W. Bush, which didn't like the scientific community's message on climate change, MacLean's reported.

"Information control is an explicit form of power," Heather Douglas, an American who now teaches science and society in the University of Waterloo’s department of philosophy.

Douglas told MacLean's she was surprised at how openly the Harper government is pursuing its policy and how meekly Canadians seem to be accepting it, compared with the backlash Bush's policy triggered.

"If this was happening in the States, we’d be well past the tipping point," she said. "This is the kind of thing that makes Americans go crazy."